Are trains interesting? It’s a question I ask myself whenever browsing the magazines at WH Smith, where shelves are devoted to a plethora of publications on railways now and then. Steam engines remain a prominent theme, although memories of the billowing smoke must be fading. The trainspotter, with anorak and notebook on a windswept platform, is a rather sad stereotype, deterring the self-conscious from anything more than a passing interest in routes and rolling stock.
Recently, however, I found myself tentatively entering the realm of railway enthusiasm, when an elderly neighbour died. A skip on the deceased’s driveway was filled with books, videos and other memorabilia, which his family obviously regarded as worthless. It seemed so undignified to him and the heritage he had helped to preserve. I rescued a few dozen books, which inspired a nostalgic journey.
As a young child, I lived alongside the East Anglia main line at Chelmsford. Trains thundered past, hauled by those characteristic yellow-nosed locomotives, presumably Class 37s. To my infant senses, these enormous beasts of burden were a fearful sight and sound. We moved to the west of Scotland when I was six, to the town of Gourock. Here is the terminus of a line electrified in the 1960s (the last steam locomotive was withdrawn in 1966). Gourock station, adjoining the pier dispatching ferries to Dunoon and Firth of Clyde cruises by the Waverley paddle-steamer, had a canopy two hundred yards long, a refuge from the lashing rain.
The neat Class 303s, built at Elderslie in 1959, remained in use when I became a regular commuter on starting college in Glasgow in 1982. These units sped alongside the M8 motorway at 75mph, and the service was fairly reliable. Two of the three carriages were for smokers, later reduced to a single carcinogenic capsule. Eventually British Rail colours were replaced by the garish orange of Strathclyde Passenger Transport, and smoking was banned.
Glasgow Central was an exhibition of old and new, from the rickety diesel units serving the outer suburbs to the Advanced Passenger Train (APT). The latter was a great leap forward that landed with a fall: the sleek tilting liner in its red, white and black livery never progressed from its trial runs. At Queen Street, the only other principal Glasgow station (St Enoch was a building site for a shopping mall), belching old diesel locomotives began the long trip to Aberdeen.
On moving south I settled in Carshalton, on the Surrey fringe of London. This was territory of Southern Railways, with the third rail rather than overhead power lines. For the rush hour, antiquated slam-door sets took the strain well into this century. Compared to the newer trains, these heavy coaches seemed to be less prone to the trouble of ‘leaves on the line’, which cripples the network in autumn.
Today the trains are cleaner, air-conditioned and ecologically efficient. Yet they are colder to the psyche. The quietness of motion is marred by the relentless barrage of automated safety messages, including the monotonous ‘see it, say it, sort it’. Commuting has been dehumanised, and soon all trains will be driverless. Ending on this note, I showed my parents the Docklands Light Railway when it opened in 1991. My mother, seeing that she had left something on the train as doors closed, ran to the front to get it to stop. Instead of a driver, she was shouting at a young mother who had taken her son for a non-existent driver’s view. That’s progress.
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Children today are no less fascinated by steam trains than in my own youth. I have noticed this at home in Sheringham (which has an active railway line), incidentally a place associated with Stephen Spender who wrote “The Express”, one of 20 sample poems I used as a teacher of English.
The village of Moniaive in Dumfriesshire, Scotland used at one time to be a place where hundreds of sheep from flocks that grazed the hills for miles around were gathered and brought to the rail-head to be loaded on trains headed south to Dumfries and beyond. The line terminated at Moniaive and, like so many others was closed in the 1960s as commercially unviable.
The last passenger to travel on the service recounted this tale. He boarded at Dumfries and alighted at Moniaive where he asked the crew the departure time of the return journey. “Och, just come and get us whenever you’re ready to go back,” came the reply. “We’ll be in the bar at the Craigdarroch Hotel.”
We are now told that steam trains as part of the industrial revolution are further evidence of the innate evil of the white English males, already primarily responsible for slavery, colonialism, genocide, racism, eugenics, antisemitism, capitalism, public schools and religious heteronormativity, because the “workshop of the world” caused the climate crisis through coal mines and factory smoke. On, and Islamophobia.
The phrase “White Privilige” really gets me going. Did the white miners of Scotland, the North East, Wales and elsewhere feel privileged? My father was born in 1883 and was illegitimate and unwanted. He changed hands for £50, by aged 13 he was working in a factory from 6.00am to 6.00pm. Nevertheless he was patriotic and volunteered for a Pals battalion in 1914.